Intervention in Libya, Yes; Intervention in Syria, No: Deciphering the Obama Administration
21 Pages Posted: 30 Jan 2012 Last revised: 4 Jun 2013
Date Written: January 27, 2012
Deciphering an American presidential administration is truly yeoman’s work. Whether the Obama Administration is significantly distinct from previous administrations is too early to judge. Arguably, the task should be left to historians. Nevertheless, even a casual perusal of President Obama’s Middle East policy (perhaps best described as "policy") reflects a combination of naiveté, inconsistency and murkiness. While perhaps by design, the impact — on the ground — is deeply troublesome. While domestic political considerations are a reality, the implications of the Administration’s policy in an area of the world as treacherous as the Middle East are, potentially, staggering.
Precisely because international law does not articulate either normative or architectural standards as to when international humanitarian intervention is justified, national leaders arguably have a responsibility to act. The oft-cited phrase "when the cannons roar, the muses are silent" is particularly relevant to this discussion. For a variety of reasons, the international community has determined — whether actively or passively — that the massacre of the Syrian population by the Assad government does not justify international humanitarian intervention. While the human rights violations occurring on a daily basis do not compare to the horrors of Rwanda, Kosovo, or Sierra Leone they are not less compelling than the events transpiring in Libya. If, by metaphorical analogy, the international community is the cannons and the U.S. is the muse, does that mean that the Obama Administration is required to be silent? After all, if the quote were to be rigorously applied, then many of the institutions created to minimize human suffering would neither exist, much less function in wartime. While the distinction — from the perspective of international humanitarian intervention — between Libya and Syria is as unclear, as are the criteria that justify intervention, that must not serve as a misguided basis for the Obama Administration to largely turn its back on the Syrian people.
Keywords: Libya, Syria, International Law, American Foreign Policy, Law of Humanitarian Intervention, International Humanitarian Intervention
JEL Classification: K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation